Russia Orders ISPs To Block Telegram, Founder Gets Crafty

On Friday a court ruled that Telegram should be blocked inside Russia due to its failure to turn over its encryption keys. In 2016, Russia passed "anti-terror laws" that require messaging services give authorities the ability to decrypt communications. Telegram founder Pavel Durov has defied the order and now says he has a workaround.

Photo: Getty

Russian outlet Meduza reports:

After an 18-minute hearing on Friday, Judge Yulia Smolina of the Moscow Tagansky District Court took 40 minutes to deliberate and grant Roskomnadzor's request to start blocking Telegram in Russia immediately, circumventing the typical legal process whereby the messenger would be able to appeal the verdict and delay when it comes into force. At Telegram CEO Pavel Durov's request, the company's lawyers didn't attend the hearing, trying not to "legitimate" the trial. The legal team says it will appeal Friday's decision.

Roskomnadzor is the name for Russia's Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media. According to Meduza, the agency must wait to receive a physical copy of the verdict and it will likely order ISPs to block the service immediately. Russian news outlets and state agencies have already begun redirecting users to other social network channels, and the Opera VPN tool shot to the top of the Apple App store in Russia.

Telegram's official position is that it technically can't hand over encryption keys because they are stored on individual users' devices, not in a central location. But even if it could, Durov has said "the requirements of the FSB to provide access to private correspondence of users are unconstitutional".

Following the decision, Durov posted on his VKontakte account that Russians should not delete or reinstall the Telegram app. His three points translate to English as:

  1. Telegram will use built-in methods to bypass the block, which do not require additional steps from users, but the company cannot give a 100 per cent guarantee of service availability without VPN.
  2. Third-party VPN/Proxy-might be overloaded, which is likely to result in slow operation during the first hours after the block.
  3. Regardless of the block, Telegram will be able to send notifications to all Russian users to keep them informed of the developments.

He went further on his Telegram channel, saying, in English, "the power that local governments have over IT corporations is based on money," but this is not a problem for Telegram because it doesn't rely on revenue streams or ad sales. "Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed."

Durov is unique among absurdly wealthy tech founders. He doesn't have to answer to board members and he's content with his wealth. After founding VKontacte, he was forced out by Russian authorities who demanded more access to user data.

He still made millions from the sale of his ownership in the company and told Bloomberg last December that he made a small fortune from his Bitcoin holdings. He also said he'll never sell Telegram no matter how high the price. This year, he launched his own initial coin offering and raised $US1.7 billion ($2.2 billion).

So, yeah, Durov can afford to thumb his nose at the Russian government, and many others. Gizmodo hasn't been able to confirm the authenticity of this letter, but Russia's most prominent activist, Alexei Navalny, tweeted a photo earlier this week that he said was Durov's response to FSB's request. Navalny wrote, "Pavel Durov actually handed over the keys to decrypt Telegram messenger to the FSB. And he did it beautifully."

Roughly translated, the letter ends with, "I am sending you keys (2 pcs.) from our cross-platform messenger Telegram with my best wishes."

[Yahoo, Reuters, Meduza]

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